Opinion - Cruel days return to Georgia for AIDS sufferers

State and Congress haven't approved funding for life-saving drugs

We are living in cruel times, as many elected officials are doing their best to eradicate the so-called social safety net.

June 5 was the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Any gay man who was around then can tell you what it's like to live in an America that casts aside its suffering citizens.

There was, most famously, the failure of Ronald Reagan to respond adequately to the epidemic. Even after he finally made a speech about AIDS in 1987, following 20,000 deaths, he did not use the word "gay" or speak against the homophobic rhetoric of groups like the Moral Majority. His own press secretary, Pat Buchanan, repeatedly referred to AIDS as nature's revenge on homosexuals. This was shocking in part because Reagan had supported gay rights during his term as governor of California. The political power of the religious right changed that. Hatred of gays flourished while Reagan played with a Bible.

For a decade, there was no effective treatment and, at first, not even reliable palliative care. My best friend's doctor abandoned him when the inevitability of death turned him skeletal. In hospitals, it was not uncommon for some staff to refuse to enter the rooms of my friends. I got used to having blood and shit on my hands.

Several of my friends were abandoned by their families. During his last days, one closeted friend cried relentlessly for his mother. She refused to see him. AIDS revealed his homosexuality while it killed him.

The first semi-effective treatment, AZT, was approved for use in 1990. My first partner's doctor forgot to file the paperwork to authorize emergency use of the drug before its formal approval. He died on Mother's Day. "It was too late for a miracle," his mother told me. Is a doctor doing his duty a miracle?

In 1996 — 15 years after the epidemic began — new antiretroviral drugs dramatically reduced the mortality rate associated with HIV infection. They don't cure the disease but slow it to chronic status.

Without the drugs, survival is unlikely. And here we return to the newly cruel America. A federal-state program, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), has provided drugs for 191,000 HIV-positive people who cannot afford them. Between June 2008 and June 2009, the recession increased the number of patients seeking ADAP support by 80 percent. But 17 states have cut back their allocations this year. As a result, more than 8,000 people are on waiting lists.

Georgia, which has one of the highest rates of infection, has the second-longest waiting list, with 1,600 people. Activists have worked hard to convince the state to increase its contribution to the program enough to receive more federal dollars. In fact, though, the General Assembly planned to reduce this year's allocation by $600,000, finally agreeing to cut it $100,000. Meanwhile, Congress has delayed its allocation at this writing, so we do not yet know if the 1,600 people on Georgia's waiting list will be covered by federal increases. If not, they could die.

It is incredible that 30 years into this epidemic — after more than half a million deaths — we are once again regarding public health care as dispensable. Let 3,000 people die in a terrorist attack and we spend billions of dollars conducting useless wars that kill hundreds of thousands more. But a disease that has killed 500,000 mainly gay men is no comparative cause for concern.

Cliff Bostock is a CL contributor</p.

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